Journalism

In Living Memory, Ganpatpatil Nagar, Thoughts from a Nation in Flux, Peril

9 Jan – Ganpatpatil Nagar

A thin fire is the only light in the long alley, otherwise dark except for a narrow sliver of light shining out of the uneven skirting of Sangita’s rough, shapeless door- it cuts a strange beam across the kacchi gully in the light winter mist, resting, diffused, as a narrow strip of colour on the blue tin wall of the shack opposite to her’s. I put my equipment in her house and join the people at the fire. It is Irshad and Sangita and a few other residents from the same gully, number 7- we are in Ganpatpatil Nagar.

My breath fogs in the air; it wasn’t as cold at the Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan in Azad Maidan where we’re coming from, some 40 kilometers south though we’re in the same city. The mist surprises me, but shouldn’t- we are, after all from a legal and technical point of view in the wilderness, and this slum that is home to over 20,000 people should not exist, a sentiment that shall, in large part, be brought to realization a few hours from now- courtesy of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the 14 bulldozers and the 2000 cops I hear they are sending. Medha Patkar is working on obtaining a stay order from the BMC, she’s meeting them at 11 AM. The demolition should start at around 9. It’s up to the people to hold them off for those two hours.

Sangita’s shack is large sheets of tin held together by rope and bamboo and it can barely hold the lot of us. It is I and Irshad plus those that already sleep here- Sangita, Seema, Sangita’s infant daughter and Ravi. Seema is to be married and sent off to Pune in a few days, I’d joke about it with her for months. I’m shivering in my leather jacket on a thin chatai next to Irshad, who seems impervious to the cold; when I wake up someone has put another sheet on me. It was Ravi, Sangita’s brother; I’d hear him say as much to someone in a month or so, recounting my ‘humanity’ and ‘sacrifice’ to those present. Never trust people that say good things about you, seldom do they mean well. It’s 6 AM, I assemble my gear and am ready to shoot in 30 seconds. Seema is amused, insists I have tea first; Irshad is out talking to some of the men- instructions. ‘But your homes are about to be destroyed,’ I think, confused. ‘Yeah, yeah, but you can’t get through the day on an empty stomach.’ Probably, I can, but I oblige. Soon Wakil Bhai will take the both of us to his shack, a more defined place that he runs a cement business out of, where he’s had breakfast prepared for us. Samosas.

Mere hours before the bulldozers arrive, I am being led on a tour of blocks and blocks of shacks and shops running across all the gullys (there are 14) that won’t be there come evening time. The official word from the BMC is that the slum has been built on designated mangrove area, protected under law from all encroachment- Ganpatpatil Nagar is something like a 2 kilometer stretch, some 1 kilometer in width, which lies between a major link road and a vanishing sprawl of mangroves where they’ve built a mall and other, municipality sanctioned ‘pakka’ structures that the BMC finds no problems with. The land value of Ganpatpatil Nagar would be in the billions by any estimation. They’ve drawn an imaginary line extending 30 feet inwards from the outer edge running through the whole slum. This will be the demolition zone. Within a month, that line would be extended until the road, and there would be no slum. At least that was the plan.

6 Feb – Ganpatpatil Nagar

Sangita steps through the door, automatically in the space of a few minutes, the attendance of a meeting begins to arrive. Or so I think. As usual, nobody is talking about anything, but I have determined a few things. A new door has been installed, Ravi probably did it, and a sofa moved into Sangita’s house. I fail to see the reason, whatever talk there is centered on the technical assemblage of the door. Later a carpenter will come along and put an estimate on fixing the three-seater at around 10,000 rupees. It’s the foam and the fabric you see, it’ll have to be replaced, and the woodwork attended to also.

The slum is being demolished again, a small portion around a week later. No one seems perturbed, but I am nowhere near the scene of proposed destruction. Sangita alone seems preoccupied, her daughter idling on her lap. Everyone else continues small talk. The girl is also silent, I don’t know her name but I photographed her a little over a week ago standing over the tarped up remains of her family shack in one of the gullys I’m not familiar with. She was smiling when I asked her. All of this is routine. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing unexpected.

A majority of the shacks that were destroyed have already been rebuilt, or are in the process of reconstruction depending on the financial situation of the owner. Yes, they are the owners- it takes 1.5 lakh rupees for the tin, bamboo and rigging on top of the price they’ve paid for the land. Reconstruction has not been possible where the BMC has dug deep trenches, levelling the land is expensive work and would fall on the individuals residing on those patches instead of the community, as it had done at the beginning, when the area had been marshes and the first squatters had moved in, tilling the earth, levelling it to a standard and building their shacks upon it- work that would’ve cost millions to any developer that would undertake it, which is why they didn’t, and their interest only wanders in now when a large part of making the land habitable has already been done.

A couple of women walk in, Sangita greets them and begins to talks shop. They seem to be volunteers of some kind from their community whatever that may be, but they don’t look it. No one looks anything. Seeing has nothing to do with believing. These women may or may not actually be talking to Sangita about a cooking job. I don’t know what anyone is really here for. The meeting, while thoroughly expected, has yet to materialize.

A baby sleeps on a chatai on the floor. Sangita’s 3 year old plays in front of a framed portrait of BR Ambedkar, the larger of two framed in the shack.

The girl’s name is Namrita. She’s calling numbers to attend the meeting, dialling from a list on a record book. Beside me, they talk about me. It’s good things so I don’t pay attention, all I’ve been doing for them so far is turning up, and they think me worthy for it. In a year, all that my work on them will produce is a handful of likes on Facebook.

The disgusting man is sitting next to me on the sofa. 10 days ago on Republic Day, when the police had sent spies that used their mobile phones to record the public talks the people here were having with Medha Patkar, one had been, for lack of a better word, captured, and held in Sangita’s shack while they figured out who he was- along with all my stuff and all my stuff on them in my dirty messenger bag under the television. The ‘disgusting man’ had been the only one to make the connection and had excused himself from the most crucial event in the history of the slum (when Medha Patkar shows up at your slum during a period of sustained demolitions, your slum is not going to be demolished anymore) and joined the lonely captive just to keep an eye on my equipment.

That day Patkar had called out to me, ‘Hey, Lucknowi! Take care of all that footage you’ve been shooting. It’s proof.’

‘Okay,’ but I didn’t believe it. Proof of what? I didn’t even understand half the things that I was recording. The who, that seemed to change every time I asked. The why, that would slip under my feet like treacherous ice when I’d try to put a finger on it. Every time I’d inch towards an understanding, the entire context would change. Like it had with Sital Mhatre.

Mhatre, a Congress corporator who had once risen to power having won the Ganpatpatil Nagar voting block, had shown up at Gully Number 1 on the day of the first demolition, spoken, and left before the bulldozers arrived. I had been inside, filming the organization of resistance (the same that would break in about 2 seconds once the laathi charge began), so I had not seen or heard her. I asked around, what had she said? There were two answers- she had protested the demolition of the slum, or, she had spoken to the police official in charge after a personal assessment of the situation and had given the go-ahead for the same.

A few days after that she went on hunger strike at the nearby police station. Many were angry that I had not gone there to document it (I couldn’t go because the same cops that had arrested me for shooting without a press pass were probably on the lookout for me for making asses of them by the way of dealing out just enough misinformation that each officer thought I had explicit permission from the other). I got a phone call, the voice on the other end was seething, ‘Don’t you know Sital Mhatre is starving for us, don’t you care? All you want to see is the demolition, nothing else interests you people.’ I told him to go fuck himself and hung up, but for all the confusion it caused not having attended the fast, I almost wish I had gone, whatever trouble may have awaited me. Ravi would say that yes, Mhatre did go on hunger strike, but she did it for the BMC to continue with the demolition, as pausing midway to confront a contest of legality would probably evolve into talks and compromise, and people like Mhatre, who stand to gain a lot from making arrangements for allotting the slum land for redevelopment would not be able to keep their secret promises to builders.

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By 8 PM, the meeting has largely collected- just under 40 people crammed into the little shack, with many watching from the door. Sangita, head of the anti-demolition resistance, and chief communicator with Patkar’s camp, lists her good action, which would otherwise not be known. An attendance call of those present begins, nearly everybody is present. Someone raises the point of transparency in the usage of their contributions. She explains how it works and calls for donations. Wakil Bhai is the first to lay down something like a thousand rupees. Our eyes meet as hers travel across the room, she instantly looks away, my money is no good here.

8 Feb – Ganpatpatil Nagar

Another demolition, this time targeting the ‘pakki’ shops lining the Link road, the only concrete structures in the slum, keeping ‘cover’, according to a few locals, for the rest of the ‘kacchi’ structures- all 4000 of them. Several of the shops remain, benefiting from the temporary effects of a stay order acquisitioned individually by each shop owner for periods extending from 6 months to 10 years.

Sangita is in attendance of a Mahila Committee meeting in not so nearby Chembur, I’m at her house with Ravi, Naseem, Seema, my crazy informant that calls me late at night with usually irrelevant information, and a strange woman, in front of whom I don’t know if I, privy to certain things that Sangita would rather keep secret for now, can openly ask questions around. I’ve never seen her before. Ravi is fixing Sangita’s kid’s bike. I have to ask these questions. 2 bulldozers flanked by a substantial police force worked 4 hours from 10 in the morning to clear 100 structures. It seems to be bureaucracy, rule frenzy, since the negotiations for ratification of the slum under the Nagar Palika rules have already begun. Once Ganpatpatil Nagar is officially declared a slum, its residents will be applicable for various schemes for protection and relocation by the government.  Naseem says Sital Mhatre sat on her ‘anshan’ to get rid of undocumented structures- I’m too tired to care. As I wait for Sangita, I’m filled in. Acting on information from ‘dalals’ (agents), bent cops collect up to 3000 rupees for every structure under reconstruction. Today, far from the bulldozers, some cops on foot personally destroyed a shack being rebuilt by owners who hadn’t paid them. I suppose they did it with their laathis.

Medha Patkar attends a public forum in Ganpatpatil Nagar

Medha Patkar attends a public forum in Ganpatpatil Nagar

The stay order obtained by Sangita, valid for the whole slum (excluding 30 feet from the road) for 6 months, which is the duration of all intended activism for GP, has not yet come into application. In fact I was not aware of its existence until just now- things move fast here, and for all the things people tell you, they tend to forget about the much larger ones. The order was brought in through Medha Patkar earlier this week. Today’s demolition seems to be a desire by the BMC to project a sense of officiality, jurisdiction and continuity with the ongoing demolition drive. It’s only political, but these people live here.

The lady in the corner turns out to be a woman here to get a divorce. This, her second husband, a drunk with a predilection towards pulling disappearance acts, beats her. Her first husband is dead. She is carrying a bag around with her clothes in it. Is she staying here, at Sangita’s? I’ll know if I see her again.

They wait till everyone has left, then shut the door, assigning someone at the door. Inner circle stuff, too many ‘dalals’ to sabotage information into misinformation before it can be used- Sangita produces a map printed on a large sheet like it’s the new testament- it’s an old map of the slum, clearly marking the ‘khadi’ (or slum) area at a sufficient distance from the designated mangroves to satisfy the Nagar Palika- the slum does not encroach upon the protected marshes- there is no legal justification for its demolition.

Late Feb – Ambeywadi

I’m walking with Irshad in Ambeywadi, Antop Hill, the slum he works out of. Where Ganpatpatil Nagar is dusty earthen gullys and tin shacks, Ambeywadi is concrete rooms and badly made, but ‘pakki’ roads. Some structures here are two, three floors high. They have electric poles wiring extending to every house and shop. Irshad tell me that one side of this street we’re walking on even has plumbing. Very suddenly it strikes me that this is what Ganpatpatil Nagar will look like in 5 years. And in 10 or 15, it probably won’t be much unlike Chembur where I live- quiet, open residential streets intertwined with crowded, narrow commercial gullys, dotted frequently with high rises and public spaces- parks, pools and little squares.

This is what I couldn’t grasp in Azad Maidan, three months ago. I could hear them complain about their problems, but I didn’t know what they were; I could hear them talk about the future, but I couldn’t imagine what it could be. This. At Azad Maidan, thronged by thousands eager for their place in the city, making awkward small talk with Anand Patwardhan was the only time I thought I was spending right, but hope is infectious, and if I have not caught theirs at least I know what it looks like.

March 2013 – Andheri, Ganpatpatil Nagar

Irshad is going to ask me, what changed your opinion of Sangita? I’ll tell him like that was where I drew the line, ‘I think she has ambitions in politics.’ When I had listened to her, it was a dark, pitch black cold night when we huddled around the fire the night before the Republic day flag hoist, when Medha Patkar would visit the slum for the first time. She spoke of the struggles her people had faced getting to this moment. I knew them, I had seen them, I knew what she was saying was right. When Patkar would come, everything would work out, it was the beginning of the end of a very long journey. ‘I’m not going to change,’ she said, referring to what she was wearing, something plain, worn- characteristic of her. The dancing light of the fire played shadows across her face, and I thought for a minute as she sat in silence that I could see the unyielding greatness that must have carried in her blood from ages past, when we fought and died for freedom and dignity, concepts we care little for having once achieved them. In the morning the door to her shack was shut. I wondered what was going on- she emerged later, wearing a beautiful white sari. ‘Something very small,’ a friend would remark when I related the incident bitterly, smoking imported tobacco in a cushy 7 Bungalow flat some days later, languishing after a stroll on nearby Versova beach. But I’d been betrayed.

10 Jan – Ganpatpatil Nagar

K,

You had asked me to detail a profound experience I’d had on my travels- I was unwilling to say it then, afraid that meaning would be lost in the semblance of words, and I’d deliver it wrong, or you’d take something from it that I didn’t receive, something that wasn’t mine to give. Or I would remember it wrong, and putting it down in words, the actual moment would be lost to me forever. I’ll tell you now though, I think I can.

Towards the evening, the police had largely left, as had the bulldozers that had razed about a fifth of Ganpatpatil Nagar, a slum near Dahisar and Borivali, home to some 20,000 people. I was moving freely now, unconstricted with having to remain out of sight from the cops who had arrested me earlier the same day only to see me return under false pretexts. That was their fault as the true pretext of my attendance they found did not work for them- I was, after all, pretending to be a purveyor of truth. Did just turning up make me one? Does writing about it all this time later, when it is difficult for me to imagine it being any help to anyone that could have required it then make me one now?

My face was dry, it seems; I had been running around from early morning, recording incoherent pleas of protest, outrage and indignation. People were dragging me around to show me how they were living. They knew they had it wrong. This was a revelation to me. They’ve come from somewhere places of their own and have their own dreams, their own perceptions of themselves, their function; lives they want. They showed me their people, their temples of worship. They were in jeopardy. The bulldozers were coming. This was a final recording, after it the subjects would cease to exist and the people would move, but no one knew where.

It is hard to feel kindly toward the better off of them, as you would envy the rich their comfort, the same existed of the security some of them had, and I could feel a twinge of it, when I’d come across someone who was under the shadow of no uncertainty whatsoever. As for the others, well as I walked amid the rubble of the remains of some 1400 shacks, I came across a boy in a school uniform and bag with a strange smile on his face- he was wandering on a small hill of tin sheets and broken, dangerous wood where his shack had been. Someone pointed at him and said, ‘Look at him, he got back from school hours ago, he doesn’t know where to put his bag.’

In gully no. 6, trying to get to no. 7 where my base was, where my leather jacket was (from the cold night before), I looked for a passage into the adjoining gully. A man stopped me, and asked he something, he must have asked me the news. I must have told him, I don’t remember, and I don’t remember why he stopped me. He was a magnificent fellow, ugly as a tree in a dirty loongi and an awful, torn vest. He was big and round, dark as ebony and had two copper plated teeth. His voice was like the voice of God.

He said I’d been working very hard. I must’ve been at it for 11 hours, so I took a moment to listen. He asked me to sit down and yelled at a child to bring out a chair for me from one of the shacks. A few other people just stood around, at a comfortable distance, perfectly still. The man repeated, aaj bahut mehnat ki hai. He had been watching me on my feet since morning, and he told me. Did he say, ‘Esne bahut kiya hai hamare liye’, or did someone else say that. I’ve heard it said a lot of me now, but it isn’t true, but I never correct it. I have done nothing, been around a lot, but achieved nothing. Nothing I saw was written, no picture I took was sent out anywhere, no video was uploaded online. I did nothing. I have done nothing now still. I might. I don’t know what to do. I waited for the milk, he gave me water first since I had asked for water when he offered me milk, thinking him a poor man to have him part with milk. I drank- I wasn’t tired, but I was dry. I must’ve been, I don’t remember. The man ran a dairy farm one gulley down, he told me. The people around us watched, said nothing. They were audience.

To continue the conversation, out of habit, I gestured east and responded to the acclamation of my efforts, ‘but what good did it do?’, and I let it be as though the words could make it that it could have, that I could have. My voice was breaking suddenly. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ He told the others gathered behind him that I had been at my work all day, and no one had offered me water to drink, or a meal. It wasn’t true, he didn’t know it (we had actually broken for a surreal mid-day meal during the demolition), but I said nothing. I was too hard at work holding back my emotions. It may be ridiculous but it’s true.

The boy (was it a boy?) brought out the milk in a steel glass. I nodded politely at the man, the heavy, ridiculous looking man- I thought I’d never see him again but I did. I was heavy from the painful, troubling day that was just beginning to end for me, the least of all my worries. The milk was warm. It was mild and rich and full, with living cream floating in thick strands through the length of the glass. It was the best milk I can remember having ever had.

Case Study: Shaukat Sheikh, A Disappearance

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I saw his son before I ever met him, Shaukat Sheikh, Irshad was making some phone calls in and NGO office and I saw the MISSING poster on the desk, held it out against him and took some photos. We were at Ambojwadi, embroiled in Ganpatpatil Nagar, far, far, far from other concerns.

The second time I ran into Shaukat, I was smoking a cigarette outside Irshad and Shafi Law’s office in Antop Hill, I don’t recall why I was there- it was becoming a bit tiresome when they’d call me all the way out for 5 minutes of information and I’d end up staying the entire day.

I recognized him immediately, even in the dark gulley. His tall, emaciated frame and that hawkish face; those alert, shining eyes. I’d photographed him at his home a few weeks ago in Golibar, Santacruz to cover the disappearance of his son in a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) fraud.

Shaukat was passed over for relocation when his area was allocated for redevelopment by a building agency, Shivalik Ventures, on the basis of an SRA criteria that allows free housing to slum-dwellers that have resided in their respective area since 1995. However, several others that did not meet the criteria were allocated housing, a fact Shaukat attributes to forgery and corruption, instigated not by the residents, but the promoters of Shivalik’s agenda in the slum.

Amid threats to life and family, he launched a series of RTIs (Right to Information query) into the builder’s practice, and it was revealed that the promoters had added fictitious names to the list of beneficiaries which forced a re-evaluation of the list by the Vigilance Committee of the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority.

On August 1, 2012, Mohammad Sajid, Shaukat Sheikh ’s oldest son disappeared on the way back from coaching classes. It was his fifteenth birthday.

It took 2 months for the police to recognize the case as a kidnapping, though fouler play is suspected still. I remember asking Shaukat if he thought the investigations of the police, the formation of a special investigation team on the order of the High Court, could possibly result in the return of his son. He told me at this point he’d rather just know what had happened to him.

A mysterious phone number showed up in three of Sajid’s school books. Sajid didn’t have a mobile phone. None of his friends had mobile numbers. Was this a relevant fact? The police refused to investigate the number, highly unusual given the context. Shaukat’s own digging revealed little.


There, in Antop Hill, he was visiting Shafi and Irshad to tell them of his court hearing the next day, where he expected the judge to put a deadline to the stagnant police investigation. He asked me if I could make it to the High Court the next day, I promised I would.

Shaukat is a simple person, who smiles kindly at jest. His lawyer, Wesley, a pro bono Human Rights guy, is joking with him, trying to work off his nerves before they enter the courtroom. He tells us all to turn our phones off; he asks me to button my collar, as it would be more formal. I oblige. He tells them not to speak, and let him handle it with the judge. I strike a conversation with his assistant, a dreamy eyed law school undergraduate. We’ll talk about noodle wrapped chicken at Mohammad Ali road. We enter.

This is a maritime courtroom, I just climbed onto a deck. Other than the light streaming in from the high windows on the upper level, the large room is lit simply by overhead lamps hanging from the clean, painted aluminum ceiling. Some cops stand around, they all wear shoes of the same ugly tan orange leather. There is the spirit of assembly, we’re all waiting for the judge to arrive; Shaukat is sitting a few spaces to my left on one of three benches on the dock, his wife to my side and Wesley, the lawyer, hovers behind him reviewing his notes.

The stacks of paper the court clerks handle on the long desk are voluminous. It appears to be pretend order, many steps to a dance of no tune. I’ve seen it in other government offices- stacks of damp, age old documents decaying in towers- they look like they haven’t been touched since being put there, and it’s difficult to imagine they would serve any purpose in the condition that they are. Metric tonnes of never digitized records that no one can handle now without tearing from cover to cover at the slightest touch. It’s all information they never knew how to process anyway- funny how they always want more.

The judge enters, preceded by a couple of bailiffs in cute red turbans, and court begins.

About half an hour into it, Shaukat turns to me and signals ‘2’. His case number is 8, there appear to be 2 left. Before I know it, it’s time.

I thought he’d lost his nerve in front of the judge, a sharp faced, fair skinned man with perfect English and an authoritative voice, but really he seems to be working himself into a respectful, subdued insistence that works really well on the judge. The main conflict here with the defendant is the reluctance to acknowledge the case as a kidnapping. The judge gives the police a week to conclude their investigation and orders immediate police protection for Shaukat and his remaining family- a 24 hour 2 man detail. Shaukat’s wife’s phone goes off. It’s a half minute of terrifying nonchalance until she realizes it’s her’s and rushes out of the room, ushered by annoyed but sympathetic court clerks and cops.

The judge is inquiring the cause of the delay in the results of the investigation, the state appointed defendant isn’t being convincing.

Does Shaukat understand what’s going on? Wesley is beaming.

It’s done, we exit the courtroom. In the busy hall, we clutch a corner against a bannister, one of the many that seem to be holding the place up and huddle around Wesley as he explains the verdict, telling Shaukat about the protection detail and the deadline. Shaukat asks if they’ve recognized the case as a kidnapping. They haven’t. Wesley explains that the court will await the police report. Shaukat, no one present, has any faith in the police.

What’s that look on Shaukat’s face? A crumbling look. Placcant. Complicated. I’ve seen it before, at school when a child would be told what they could not do, without hope or the possibility of reasoning or dialogue. A worthless affront by a system that doesn’t care; it surprises and frightens me to see that as it was for us as children, it will be for us as men, led unquestioningly by a useless cavalcade of better dressed, better educated fools.

Shaukat stood up against oppression and they took his son away. He turned to the system for help, the system that had betrayed him in the first place and it did nothing. Now, years later, it appears that the court will grant Shaukat recognition for his persistence. Acknowledgment of his loss? No, not yet. And no justice either, perhaps never that.

 

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White Lines, Grey Lines. Case Study: Irshad Ali and Shafi Law

F______,

The fact that I’m on Microsoft Word here should apprise you of the gravity of the matter I’m writing to you about. I was in a hurry when I received your letter yesterday morning, and I apologize for the childish replies I did send you; I was amazed though, you had finally written an honest letter. I had never considered your feelings regarding your advice to me when my own to you you say you’ve often followed. If you knew a bit more about who I am, you would understand my reluctance. I’m not a free person, I haven’t been for years. The monkeys that were screaming on my back then are now just there and I’m too accustomed to their company to imagine life without them. I think that is the way it must be for the most of us. The reasons slip, the actions remain. It goes on.

I’ve become cynical? When I went home from Mumbai last year, I would hear the kids there talk about how they wanted to help people and their plans to- granted this, granted that. But I wondered, why would they want to?

There’s more that’s happened than I remember, and somewhere along the way, I found you can just wait for people to die and fuck off and it generally works. Children encrusted in ages old dirt that’ll never wash off their elbows and knees, their shins and forearms, their parents, Hunter Thompson would call them ‘the doomed’ for whom it’s already begun, awful and encapsulating- the end. I refused to help them when I could, at times I’d pay them to leave me, on my way to my daily meals and my daily bed. Yeah, I fear God but welcome to the new hubris. Still, a fear lingers. Do you remember what it was like, in the black darkness of the womb, before you knew what you would be born into- the fear?

I’d like to tell you about something, about someone I met- Irshad Ali and Shafi Law

Irshad is my age, perhaps a little shorter than I, with a full beard and lean and handsome with a dark complexion.  He wears a Muslim head cap. He is the most dedicated, hardworking person I have ever been around. And he does it all for reasons I cannot comprehend.

I first met him in Azad Maidan, during the Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao Andolan early last year, on my third day there. Comfortable in flux, I was wandering the grounds sometime after midnight, chatting to and taking pictures of the people that were still awake. The day had been a bit rough, and now that it was mostly over, I was trying to work off the fever rush and find my place among the many hundreds that had bedded in the park around me, on thin sheets of tarp to protect them from the winter damp.

I walked towards the stage area to stash my equipment, where it would be safe for the night. Medha Patkar was sitting pretty much the way she had been for hours, finishing off the day’s final meetings with a stream of eager slum activists and coordinators before settling in for some five hours of sleep before repeating the same procedure tomorrow. On the way back, I realized that this guy, Irshad, whom I had seen around until then but never really paid any attention to was talking about me with one of Patkar’s assistants, a very beautiful girl called Kanika. I was something of a mystery for everyone there, I’d just showed up one day with professional camera gear and never left. Rumours of my affiliations would float and spar for many months- it became something I took some pleasure in observing, and generally did my part to mislead in. I think it was going something like, ‘Who is this guy, speaking in English to you, he’s been here for a while.’ Kanika cut through it in all of two seconds and simply introduced us. Irshad warmed when he realized I actually did speak the languages that he did and the reason I was there was as entirely unknown to me as it was to anyone else. We got to talking; he told me of the work he did for the people. Here was this guy, underprivileged as any of those occupying the park, but somewhat educated, and smart enough to want to do things, and courageous and wilful enough to actually do them. We talked for a long time about civil rights, freedom, duty and finally at some late hour we went off to find our own corners of the park to sleep in.

A few days after, the Ganpatpatil Nagar demolitions came around, and I jumped right in. I took that midnight train with the GP people to document the destruction of their homes and was the only sympathetic media presence in a slum of some 15,000 or 20,000 people situated some four kilometres from the Dahisar station, unfortunately, on several acres of prime land along a major link road. Irshad was sent on behalf of the Andolan to coordinate the people of GP to protest the demolition and organize peaceful resistance.

It felt like a war march, walking from CST to Churchgate Station in the middle of the night, I with my equipment, Irshad and the dozen or so Ganpatpatil Nagar residents who had come to Azad Maidan to apprise Medha tai of the situation and seek her help. I don’t remember having ever walked anywhere with the sense of purpose that I did that night. We managed to catch the last train taking us to Dahisar. On the train, the GP people began talking and joking and being regular like the mood had changed, or at least evolved in the whimsical, adaptive way that I was soon to learn is the essence of human nature under the strain of survival. Everyone was nodding off; it was maybe 2AM by the time we got there. Maybe I did too, it was becoming surreal, and I looked at Irshad and said, in English, ‘I feel far from the revolution’, he smiled and nodded, ‘Yes’.

I saw a lot of him in the next few months- the GP drama went on for maybe 2 or 3 weeks and we each had our parts to play, if mine oblique.  After that however, he invited me over to Antop Hill where he is based, and where he works with Shafi Law. Shafi Bhai is about 35, married with a small child, and was disappointed when I couldn’t remember him by face- we must have met in Azad Maidan. He’s a lawyer that operates out a small room in a slum, and his clients generally can’t afford to pay him for what he does. Last time I met him he was very embarrassed about his 10,000 rupees Nokia and felt the need to explain that it had been a gift from one of his slightly wealthier clients. He’s associated with Medha Tai’s organization Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao and his work consists of obtaining Ration Cards (I saw bundles of them arrive), settling police brutality complaints, land grabs and a million other things I’m too ignorant to understand. Irshad is his right hand guy. Irshad is the guy who delivers notices, paperwork and ferries information and communiqués between the courts, police, Shafi and Ghar Bachao.

This is Mumbai we’re talking about, where making one trip on the railways or buses with some 7 million others drains me, and Irshad does it all day long, every day. I remember returning to their little office after one such trip and Irshad collapsing in his plastic chair and declaring that they really needed to get a bike or some other method of transport.

They don’t really get paid for what they do. I don’t think they even get the appreciation they deserve from the people they help- it’s a very strange thing that I’ve found that if you help someone in need, well, it turns out that you were actually supposed to and that’s about that. But that’s not how they think. Once Irshad told me that because he’s managed to get the education he has, he has a responsibility to give back. It’s funny to hear him say something like that when I can’t get my heart past the debt society seems to owe me. In fact it is the logic that drives, my fundamental understanding of my function in this world- to take what is mine, rather than give of what has been given to me, which is foreign to me and so strange that I mention it here at the risk of sounding ridiculous.

Sometimes, when I was traveling with Irshad, when I was really exhausted or worn out, I would defer all sociality and speak to him in English, which he grasped more than enough of to know exactly what I was saying. He was really tickled when he asked me why I had it in for the government, and I said, I lived out of the country my whole life- a second rate life with no place of my own and withstood all that, but ‘this is my fucking country’. He said I had put it well and laughed.

Irshad, second from front left

Irshad, second from front left

It wouldn’t quite do to say that I must have disappointed them. I left a year ago, almost to the day; I was going home after a very long time. There, I found my own occupations, and while not a day passed when my thoughts did not fly to the people I had met, I did nothing about it, not even the things that I’d promised. I never told their story, or the things that I had witnessed- selflessness in the face of uncertainty, in today’s world, that shook the core of me. But far from their daily grind, our realities diverged, and I rediscovered older, more personal things to dissolve my time in, with results that were of consequence to me and that made sense to me and I could understand.

I am hesitant to contact them again, almost afraid that they’re still doing what they were when I left them, it is far too much to expect of anyone mortal and plain. But I have no doubt either, and it disturbs me. It is only minutes until I have to entertain my next engagement, and soon I will be lost in other thoughts, easier ones that also pay well and shrunk would be the observation that, once, in my own understanding, I had rushed to their defense. That was the idea, but they rushed first to mine, it was a favor I did not repay.

No one ever quite calls me like he used to, Irshad, in his low, spaced voice talking from the foot of the earth like his words had wings, ‘Reza come by the office today, there’s something we want you to see’

Articles of Faith, India, Revisited

‘This happens in India,’

I close my eyes, and the vast rush of Africa thrills like I can feel the mighty wind of the savannas in my hair.

Vivek would be in Zambia, shooting lions for National Geographic, he said. The picture is a difficult one for him to illustrate in the fog of the pre-dawn bender he’s just concluding, sprawled across the floor in the hall of a featureless 6th floor apartment in Chembur that he shares with his coworkers- engineers in their third year of work at a local truck company. The view from the floor to ceiling windows on his right, the one he wakes up to every morning is all flaming chimneys and the factory spires of a chemical and fertilizers plant that could give Isengard a run for its money. Zambia feels very far.

‘This happens in India,‘ he says, with a wry smile flickering on his lips. I think his eyes may have twinkled- once for something very old. His dreams have dried, wilted somewhere on a superfast highway he never stopped on. As I look at him now, with his bimonthly professional haircut now at least two weeks defunct and sagging in a sweaty mess upon his brow, I wonder what his thoughts were, during his most weightless moments- the excursions of his mind.

He tells me about the magazines. Born to language teachers, Vivek was no stranger to literature but the only books that seem to have made any impression on him were copies of National Geographic he received for his birthday from his uncle until he was 14. They were the most beautiful insight into the world beyond the small Uttarkhand hill station he’s from.

Ranikhet. The lush, verdant cantonment town of around 20,000 people sounds like it’s been lifted right out of a story by Kipling- a place littered with relics from our colonial past, full of lakes and streams and any number of waterfalls; a place where at dusk the sun sets last on the western-most peaks of the Himalayas, bathing their summit in a soft golden light that lingers until the rosy glow of the ‘pahadi’ twilight cedes completely to the thin, starry veil of the frigid night. This was the view from his childhood bedroom window, one shared across time, in humility, by Jim Corbett, Keki Daruwalla and many others. The hours Vivek spent scouring the pages of his uncle’s magazines had nurtured his perspective into a vision through which he wanted to capture the beauty and relevance of his surroundings, and utilize them as a means to express himself.

He was, after all, ambitious.

Crop 1880's PHOTO INDIA VIEW OF RANIKHET

Ranikhet, circa 1880

‘Andhon mein kana raja,’

Vivek grew up in a colony built by the East India Company to house military staff, his parents taught English and Hindi courses in government schools nearby. Being a first rate student, he was sent off to a district army boarding school when he was 11.

Run by an Anglo-Indian brigadier, the institution was tailored to provide a standardized education gleaned from the remnants of the British method dating back to the colonial era, complete with the Tom Brown setting and a singular focus on discipline. Being an army establishment, visiting officials and dignitaries would come to the school and give talks about patriotism and national defense, few of which Vivek ever attended. For all its talk about nationalism and retaining identity in changing times (something that used to lead Vivek to long arguments with his father concerning his job as an English teacher), it was a finable offense to be caught speaking in Hindi at the English medium school, and Vivek was a serial violator. As was usual in his circle of friends he would take off from the school premises at first opportunity to any one of a number of ‘jharnas’ nearby where he’d shed the navy blue blazer and striped tie school uniform, somehow extraneous without a Buckinghamshire backdrop to go, and swim in the clear cool waters of the ebullient streams of the hilly North.

Vivek says he cut his teeth on ‘reality’ in 9th grade and gave up his aspirations toward photography. Towards the end of the first half of the 2000’s, with the globalization tempest in full swing across the country and MNCs launching operations and markets in every major city, young Indians were beginning to find a host of new ways to use their education. Vivek saw his cousins and older friends find respectable, if conventional, employment and address their responsibilities towards their families and their upbringing far faster than used to be the norm. During the same time he also saw the varied ambitions of his classmates sieved evenly into medicine and engineering, as coming of age in a country spinning with the new energy of massive foreign investment clearly set practicality against, well, impracticality.

It isn’t hard to understand how these circumstances impacted Vivek to give up his longstanding dream, but the abrupt ruthlessness he did it with was startling. Earlier, he had spoken earnestly of having always known he could perform, in academics and much else, better than his peers. ‘Andhon mein kana raja,’ he said dismissively, but this was coming from a star student and athlete whose picture had been on those ‘state topper’ banners you see on roadsides until he finished high school. He would be ‘the best’ at anything he tried, and his success pushed him to adjust to the idea that if he wanted to, he probably should rise to the top of every list he signed himself up for. Perhaps he came to see employability through the same competitive lens that he viewed education with. Either way, he dedicated the next few years of his life to raising himself, further, to the absolute limits of the education circus and decided to go to Kota, Rajasthan- a coaching hub- to prepare for. All he had in mind at this point was his career.

Army School Certificate

Army School Certificate

…he was one of those peculiar kids solving questions from textbooks 2 or 3 years above his grade in school

Kota is a horrifying city. If you go there, you will be terrified,’ he tells me, ‘You don’t do anything else there (but study). It is the hub.’ 

Vivek is adamant I understand the gravity of his decision to go to Kota. His parents, seasoned educators, knew exactly what he was getting into. For a student of Vivek’s caliber it was the only logical step to take before appearing at the All India Engineering Entrance Examination, the results of which would determine the course of the better part of the rest of his life. He ranked in the top 1 percent in that exam, at number 2017 amongst 300,000, a feat that got him into NIT, one of the best rated universities in India.

In the year he spent in Kota, he says he realized that there was nothing special about him. Nothing about what he had achieved and what he had given up stood out among the trials and sacrifices of the many thousands of other students he met there. He called Kota a place where ‘machines are made, programmed to do things that would make them the best in the world.’ He reminded me of a Chinese student I had met in Edinburgh. This guy was doing a Masters in chemical engineering, studying plastics. A little surprised, I’d asked him how he’d come to develop an interest in plastics. He told me it was no such thing- he had given an exam and the government had decided to allot him to a subject according to his score. I asked him what it took to get into arts, and why he hadn’t gone into that ‘field’ if it was easier, as is the case in India. He said that it is nearly impossible to get into arts because only the highest scoring students qualify.

Vivek is something of a mathematician; he was one of those peculiar kids solving questions from textbooks 2 or 3 years above his grade in school. Today, they have him figuring out itineraries and overseeing sales and shipping at AMW trucks.

He and his colleagues are paid well for what they do, but probably ‘more than we deserve,’ observes a fellow NIT graduate who lives and works with him. Vivek’s situation clearly touches the heights of the ‘best case scenario’ as far as education and employment go. The prospects are endless, if slow to mature, and the potential is undeniable.

It is disappointing to observe that Vivek’s story just kind of middles and while he did earn the security he was looking for, it’s difficult to say he enjoys it very much. I have this empty feeling that there’s an army of hard working, hard drinking Indian geniuses in this country chasing after spare parts and processing email inquiries that would otherwise have been shaping the face of our nation at unexpected and groundbreaking avenues. But the national fear of failure persists and breeds within most a reluctance to experiment, to wander within themselves and explore not only what truly makes them happy, but even what they can be most productive at. It isn’t hard to boil down the issue at hand to the tyranny of circumstance, national or otherwise; or to our half-baked system of education- the one that was imparted to us by our colonial masters to educate us to a degree that would enable us to be more dynamic in our servitude. But must we?

Vivek in his flat

Vivek in his flat

…we’re only wetting our lips from a cup when there’s an ocean of possibility we remain… ignorant of

It is fruitless to blame the British at this point; they’ve been gone for a while now. The real problem is that other one- circumstance.

The fact is that things are no longer dire. Actually, things have been getting better and better, and I’m not one to pick a fight with the statistics. But however better off we might be than whatever we’ve been comparing ourselves with, it is my unshakeable feeling that as a nation, we stopped too early, and still on our colonial tracks, at the earliest signs of actual prosperity and said, well this is it, we’re here. India has always been bridled with the best, but we found contentment too many trials too soon, and we put a label on it and declared it right and practical. Vivek could have settled for the peak at his bedroom window, but fueled by the belief that he could invent a future for himself among churning things, he chose a different one- a faraway one that can barely fit itself upon the landscape where it now stands.

But that is not my problem with his situation. My problem with his situation is that he got there, and it’s boring, and it shouldn’t be. Not for him. But it’s the same story all over. By charting our perception of success and satisfaction on maps of experience drawn generations before us, we’re only wetting our lips from a cup when there’s an ocean of possibility we remain, in congress, quite ignorant of. But who’s to launch a debate on the mass perspective of a nation that gets by?

Vivek tells me that the only instance of failure in his academic life occurred when he was 4. Tasked with drawing an apple for some kind of exam, he drew a beautiful one and coloured it black, despite having spent the night before practicing the same endlessly with his mother, in the right colour. ‘I still don’t know why I did that,’ he says, it seems to be something he’s wondered about on occasion. Had it been some kind of act of preemptive mutiny, an early premonition of a rebellion that would never materialize? The black apple hangs in his childhood home, a vision of possibility framed unwittingly by his mother on a wall in his room, a constant reminder of untaken paths to ponder over whenever he can steal a couple of weeks off work and take the train home. Ominously, he says he will ‘return’ to photography and the other things he’s put off when he’s 40 or 50. It’s a feeling a lot of us know.

I feel like I have shared sweet smiles with the gone children, a generation of men and women who never had a chance to wander at leisure and examine their souls. It is a generation doomed to the turmoil of uncertainty concerning its decisions and the guarantee of the now classic executive mid-life crisis that goes with a moderate monthly salary. They are deaf to the calamity of their situation. ‘This happens in India,’ and dreams are lost, regurgitated in a youthful mist that vanishes a little more every day. But between every shaft of the harsh glare of the sun is shade, and we thrive there.

Vivek is asleep on the floor, surrounded by empty glasses and a bottle of rum he couldn’t quite finish. I lift his jacket, a Pepe Jeans sleeveless fleece, from the sofa-cum-bed adjacent to the window and throw it over him. Shimmering in the shaky glow of the flames from the fertilizer plant, a Union Jack glares at me dimly from the back of it.

The night speaks in tongues; I switch off the lights and leave.